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Canudos Campaign - 1896-1897

In 1861 a man named Antonio Maciel lived in Pernambuco with his mother. He possessed fair education and moderate fortune, but had married against his mother's wishes. Jealousy sprang up between parent and wife. Maciel's mind was poisoned by his mother's constant insinuations that she had proof of the wife's infidelity. She told her son to secrete himself in the bushes at the foot of the garden, and that shortly after nightfall he would see his wife meet her lover. To the wife a similar story was told, and in the evening the mother donned male costume and approached the trysting-place she had indicated to husband and wife. In the darkness Maciel saw, as he thought, his wife and her lover, and fired first at the one and then at the other, killing both. Overcome by remorse, he apprised the authorities of his crime, and was condemned to a long term of imprisonment, but at the end of a year was pardoned.

He then determined to devote the remainder of his life to missionary work in the interior of Brazil, selecting what is known as the sertao for his field, a district inhabited by people descended from Indians mingled with Portuguese blood, who have little in common with the Brazilian of to-day. Known as Jagunpos, they live on the products of the chase. Although provided only with antiquated weapons, every man is armed, and their wants are few; only a little Indian corn to add to their diet of fish and game, a small supply of cloth for the rough garments they wear, and a stock of powder and lead for their firearms. It was to these savages Maciel set out, and in the course of thirty-five years he came to be regarded by them as a prophet.

Antonio Conselheiro, as this man was called by his followers, preached no recognized form of religion. He merely taught the Jagunpos that there was a life hereafter they could attain under certain conditions of living on earth, inculcating, however, many fundamental principles of Christianity, civilization, and a belief in a Supreme God. From time to time chapels were built in different districts, and round these settlements sprang up. One such place was Canudos, some 300 miles from Bahia, and there the authorities of Bahia thought it necessary to nominate a magistrate. This official became involved in an intrigue with a Jagunpo woman, and becoming afraid of remaining at Canudos he obtained an appointment in a neighboring district, taking the girl with him. Antonio Conselheiro, in 1896, sent out men to cut wood for building purposes, and these people came to the vicinity where the former Canudos magistrate was. Thinking they were searching for him, he sent police to drive them from the district. A fight ensued, and the police were worsted. Bahia was asked for assistance, and 200 men arrived, but proved unable to cope with the Jagunpos, who, believing the Government wished to turn them out of their settlements, determined to resist.

The Governor of Bahia then appealed to the Federal Government for aid, and an expedition under command of Major Febronio was organized, to which was added a number of police from Bahia. In January the march to Canudos began, and the camp of Antonio Conselheiro was reached at the end of the month. Ordered to surrender, the Jagunpos refused, and Febronio determined to take the place by assault. But the troops were repulsed, 50 officers and men killed or wounded, and the expedition forced to retire towards Queimadas, suffering severely during the retreat. Quantities of arms and ammunition fell into the hands of the enemy.

The Federal Government now decided to send a strong force against Canudos, and a column of 1500 men was organized, including a battery of field artillery, and strengthened by 400 armed police. The command was given to Colonel Moreira Caesar, and in February 1897 the advance began. Queimadas, 180 miles to the north-east of Bahia, was the base of operations, and for the greater part of the distance railroad communication was available. Thence the country was rugged and broken, and heavy undergrowth afforded excellent cover for the enemy. Colonel Moreira Caesar, however, was confident of success. Underestimating the strength of the enemy, the expedition was pushed forward rapidly, and small precautions taken to avoid surprise.

The inevitable followed; on March 2, the column was ambuscaded, the troops thrown into confusion, and Colonel Moreira with many officers and men killed. Panic ensued; the guns were abandoned, rifles and ammunition thrown away, and stores of all kinds left lying by the roadside. News of this disaster reached the Government three days later, the telegram from Bahia stating that fugitives arriving at Queimadas reported the annihilation of the expeditionary force, but after three or four days further particulars showed that the loss of life was not so great as at first supposed. Stragglers drifted back, and when the final muster of the survivors was made, some 1100 men were present.

Colonel Moreira Caesar had been one of the prominent members of the military regime under Peixoto. So it was now asserted by his former followers that the Canudos movement was the outcome of monarchist intrigues, and that the fault of the disaster lay with the Administration for not dealing more harshly with all persons of monarchist tendencies. Serious rioting ensued in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. The offices of the newspapers Apostolo, Liberdade, and Gazeta da Tarde in the former city, and that of 0 Commercio in the latter, were sacked, and other buildings were damaged, on March 7. Next day the mob again assembled, and Colonel Gentil de Castro, the editor of the Jornal do Brazil, a newspaper professing monarchist leanings, was assassinated at the Sao Francisco Xavier station. Attempts were also made to murder the Visconde de Ouro Preto and Senhor Affonso Celso, but a powerful police force brought into the city restrained the mob from further violence.

A strong army corps was forthwith organized, for it had become evident that another repulse would bring serious complications. For one thing, a victory for Antonio Conselheiro would draw to his standard thousands of Jagungos and give additional incentive to repeat the disgraceful scenes of March 7 and 8 in Rio. Orders were issued for the regulars at all stations to concentrate at Bahia, and several States aided by sending local regiments, so that by May the force consisted of 10,500 troops. General Cantuaria was given charge of the Bahia military district, General Arturo Oscar directed the field operations, with General Savaget as second in command. Oscar pushed on towards Canudos in June, but was greatly hampered by want of transport, and had much difficulty in provisioning the troops. The Jagungos gave the expedition no rest, laying ambuscades in all directions.

As Oscar approached Canudos the tactics of Antonio Conselheiro became bolder, and his persistent attacks had already cost the troops 1000 casualties. The men were wearied by long marches over barren stretches of country, and were poorly supplied with provisions and ammunition. It therefore became necessary to suspend the advance, and Colonel Madeiros with a strong brigade was detached, to convoy the wounded to Monte Santo and bring back supplies. This was understood by Conselheiro to mean that the troops were afraid to approach nearer to Canudos, so the Jagunpos assembled in force and surrounded Oscar's camp, which was located in a position commanded by abrupt hills, from which a continuous fire was maintained. Soon the situation became critical, but relief was afforded by Savaget in command of a column 2000 men, which had marched through Sergipe to effect a junction with General Oscar near Canudos. At the beginning of July he arrived at Cocorobo, six miles to the north of Canudos, and fought a severe action, in which the general and 6 officers were wounded, the casualties amongst the rank and file exceeding 200 men. In spite of this loss General Savaget continued his advance, and reached Oscar just when matters looked most gloomy. There the combined forces remained on the defensive awaiting the return of Colonel Madeiros with supplies.

When the Government understood the difficulties confronting General Oscar, further reinforcements of 3500 men were ordered to Bahia. Additional artillery was also sent to the front, and heavy siege guns were dispatched to reduce the fortified positions in the neighborhood. This brought the total number of troops employed in the operations up to 14,000) and no more could be furnished without calling out the National Guard. The Minister of War, General Bittencourt, proceeded to Bahia to superintend the arrangements for the campaign. Public interest was centered upon the movements of the troops.

No attention was paid to repeated assertions in certain quarters that the main source of strength for the Jagunpos was the support they obtained from monarchist centers, for they were false. The Jagunpos were religious fanatics with a blind faith in the personality of Conselheiro, and their ability to resist troops lay in the fact that every inch of the country was familiar to them, enabling them to move quickly from one position to another whenever the expedition advanced. Being also skilled marksmen, they made the best use of the ammunition at their disposal, and the arms and other war materials captured from Colonel Moreira Caesar and other expeditions gave them means of defense. Their successes at the commencement of the struggle tended to convince them that they were in the right in a conflict regarded by them as an attack upon their religious practices.

While waiting for the reinforcements and supplies, General Oscar moved to a hill two miles from Canudos, known as Favella. The position was undesirable owing to scarcity of water, but it was possible to use artillery fire from this point against the headquarters of the fanatics. On July 18 Oscar attempted to storm Canudos, and the troops succeeded in capturing a portion of the town, but were ultimately driven back with the loss of 800 killed and wounded. Oscar then determined to remain entrenched on the Favella hill until the arrival of the reinforcements from Bahia.

A long siege now ensued, varied by attempts to assault the outlying portions of the settlement and by sallies of the fanatics to dislodge their enemies from the positions from time to time captured. During August and September the bombardment continued, but a stone church building in the center of the town was still intact at the commencement of October, and this formed the rallying point for the Jagunpos when their trenches became untenable from shell fire. General Oscar had intended forcing the surrender of Canudos by shutting off supplies, and becoming impatient at the determined resistance offered, decided to order a general assault. When October came and the besieged town showed no signs of capitulating, the troops available for the attack numbered 5500, and with these the advance was made on October 3.

A desperate encounter followed, but the defense was unable to resist superior force, and finally succumbed. The church was only carried after a fierce fight, in which the remnant of the fanatics sheltered by its stone walls were killed. Terrible scenes ensued. All discipline was lost; many of the houses and huts in which women and children had taken refuge were set on fire, the occupants perishing in the flames or deliberately shot down when endeavoring to escape, no mercy being shown. How many were killed is not known, but the bodies of 450 fighting men were counted. A few prisoners, however, were saved from the general massacre, and brought, some to Bahia, some to Rio, but they refused to speak of their life at Canudos. A body, reported to be that of Antonio Conselheiro, was found buried under the church. It was asserted he had been killed several days before the final battle.

With the fall of Canudos the war ended, although bands of Jagungos were still reported in different districts, and information reached General Oscar that they were concentrating in force at Caypam. At the approach of troops, however, they dispersed, and nothing more serious than the interchange of a few shots occurred, so at the end of October the evacuation of the district was ordered. The total losses in this campaign were placed at from 5000 to 6000 officers and men killed and wounded.

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Page last modified: 15-04-2013 12:06:06 ZULU